While legislators (or at least those few leaders who remain in Olympia to bicker about the budget) plod toward the fourth week of the special session, the wheel-spinning has settled into a monotonous drone. Gov. Chris Gregoire complained, “I’m disgusted, period … Nothing is going on that I can tell. No matter how many offers I’ve given for compromise, they have not resulted in compromise. Time’s up.” And that was nine days ago, on March 26.
The governor’s exasperation is understandable. The special session is limited to 30 days, a period that will expire on April 13. If the budget-writing stalemate is not broken soon, Gregoire has threatened to impose a 20 percent across-the-board cut on all state agencies, a seismic warning that sends shudders across the state, especially among educators and providers of services to the most vulnerable citizens.
However, a momentary break in the futility occurred Wednesday when Gregoire signed into law a package of bills that — even before an examination of the details — tugs at the heartstrings of all Washingtonians. Most of the bills were passed unanimously or by wide margins in the Legislature, and it’s easy to understand why. Designed to boost state benefits for survivors of slain police officers, and to intensify law-enforcement efforts against perpetrators of such crimes, the bills were in response to the shocking deaths of six officers in just two months last year. In Seattle on Halloween night, Officer Timothy Brenton was killed as he sat in his patrol car. In Lakewood on Nov. 29, a massacre in a coffee shop claimed the lives of Sgt. Mark Renninger and Officers Ronald Owens, Tina Griswold and Greg Richards. The next month Pierce County Deputy Kent Mundell of Puyallup was shot to death while responding to a domestic disturbance call.
It is to these six heroes’ honor that Wednesday’s bill-signing at the Lakewood Police Department was dedicated, and it was with a shaking voice that Gregoire announced: “I know that today is a bittersweet day. But out of this terrible tragedy, something positive has come. You have left a legacy to law enforcement throughout our state.”
One of the bills raises a lump-sum payment for survivors of police and firefighters killed on duty from $150,000 to $214,000 and adjusts for inflation in the future. Another bill removes a requirement that an officer or firefighter have 10 years of service before survivors can draw an annual retirement benefit. “Whether an officer has served for one year or 20, when they make the ultimate sacrifice, their family should receive the benefits they deserve,” Gregoire correctly stated.
Also, children and spouses of police officers or firefighters who die or become totally disabled on duty are now guaranteed free college education in the state. Previously, colleges were given the option of waiving tuition and fees.
As for enforcement and prosecution, another bill toughens penalties for helping a criminal suspect evade capture. In the Lakewood tragedy, Maurice Clemmons was allegedly helped by friends and family as he eluded police. Clemmons later was killed by a Seattle police officer.
Later this year, voters will be presented with a proposed amendment to the state constitution that would give judges more power in denying bail, another response to the Lakewood shootings. Clemmons had been released on bail less than a week before his attack.
Last week’s lesson for all Washingtonians is clear and simple: Even during times of exasperation and political futility, there comes a time for elected officials to step forward and do what’s right. Wednesday’s bill signing was one of those times. Although hearts continue to ache, appropriate measures have been taken both to honor the fallen heroes and to respect those who follow in their footsteps.